Aerial Disaster Wrap-Up, From France and China

France This is a placeholder for eventual (or so I intend) further parsing of the reports on the Air France 447 crash into the South Atlantic three years ago. I had several reports at the time and afterwards but then didn't keep up with emerging finding and reader hypotheses.

For now your best resource is to read this analysis at the Australian site Crikey, which lays out the emerging evidence that the crew was fundamentally disoriented (a) in understanding what was happening to their airplane, and (b) in having a clear line-of-command about who was in charge of the airplane. Clarity about who is in command of an aircraft -- "You've got the controls" / "Yes, I've got the controls" -- is a basic element of "cockpit resource management" for flight crews. For whatever reason, that and other aspects of basic airmanship got neglected in the panic and confusion that followed the loss of many crucial cockpit instruments. (Below, the course of Flight 447 overlaid on renderings of the violent thunderstorm into which it flew.)

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For other valuable background, see another Crikey report, and an item last year from Patrick Smith's wonderful-but-now-terminated "Ask the Pilot" column at Salon. (Smith says he will eventually resurrect his columns here.) You can also get the full English version of the final report of the French Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA) in PDF here.

China For what is perversely encouraging air-crash news, see this report from Global Times in China, about a deadly Henan Airlines incident in 2010:


What is significant here is -- go figure! -- precisely the aspect emphasized in the headline: the fact that the Chinese authorities have been so forthcoming about all the details of their accident investigation. As the article says, "The report was unprecedented in its level of detail, paving the way for more detailed public accident reports in future."

To make sure no one misses the point, the article says lower down:
This represents the first time that a report has led to punishments for individuals. Previously, aviation companies decided discipline in what was effectively a secret in-house process. Punishments tended to be along the lines of revoking a pilot's license, a professor surnamed Wu from the Civil Aviation Flight University of China, told the Global Times.

"Having clearly defined responsibilities is conducive to punishing personnel with laws, and would enhance safety awareness," Wu said. "Supervision, personnel training, and safety standards would be improved."
This connects with a big theme in my current book, which is that attaining first-rank status in many modern industries including aerospace will require from the Chinese system a degree of transparency, accountability, "rules-based" operation, and so on that until now has been quite difficult for it. (For example, contrast this accident investigation with the cover-up that followed the terrible high-speed rail crash in China last year.) I have to admit that I'm impressed -- and cheered -- by the way Global Times, a government-controlled nationalist publication, decided to play this story.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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